What’s a conspiracy theory? It’s an unfounded, deeply held alternative explanation for how things are—often invoking some shadowy, malevolent force masterminding the coverup. The attractiveness of conspiracy theories may arise from a number of cognitive biases that characterize the way we process information. “Confirmation bias” is the most pervasive cognitive bias and a powerful driver of belief in conspiracies. We all have a natural inclination to give more weight to evidence that supports what we already believe and ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs. The real-world events that often become the subject of conspiracy theories tend to be intrinsically complex and unclear. Early reports may contain errors, contradictions and ambiguities, and those wishing to find evidence of a cover-up will focus on such inconsistencies to bolster their claims.
Conspiracy theories thrive on the internet, but that’s certainly not where they were born. The Flat Earth Society has existed since the 1800s, and people have been speculating about which people are secretly living or dead at least since 68 AD, when Romans weren’t convinced their arsonist emperor Nero had actually committed suicide. But conspiracies and the digital world do mesh well, probably because they scratch similar itches in our not-quite-domesticated psyches. Internet culture runs on people sinking huge amounts of effort into obscure and seemingly pointless undertakings. And conspiracy theories are to people what an unsupervised toddler is to a bored border collie: It may not look quite like a sheep, but when you nip at its ankles, your brain sure feels like it’s doing its job. The combination of the endless internet and your pattern-hungry brain has managed to spread webs of red string farther than was ever before possible.
Conspiracy theories are also false beliefs, by definition. But people who believe in them have a vested interest in maintaining them. First, they’ve put some effort into understanding the conspiracy-theory explanation for the event, whether by reading books, going to web sites, or watching TV programs that support their beliefs. Uncertainty is an unpleasant state, and conspiracy theories provide a sense of understanding and certainty that is comforting.
On the web, it’s often hard to distinguish real conspiracy theories from gleefully ironic acts of collective world building—and either way, speculating about which celebs are immortal vampires and which are secretly lizards is mostly harmless fun (and excellent meme fodder). But because many dark pre-internet conspiracies have found new homes on the web, you’re always a digital hop and a skip from the mind-bending alternate universes controlled by many of the same people responsible for our fake news crisis.
In Honor of Conspiracy Theories Time Magazine did list of 10 of the most popular Conspiracy Theories which included: